Some of my co-workers at the nursing home where I work have a book club and for a while, I was a member. We had this rule about not reading anything that anyone in the group had read before, so we mostly stuck to new releases and Oprah's picks, like A Million Little Pieces. Everyone in book club said it was their favorite read ever. I’d liked it too, so I felt personally lied to when it came out that James Frey had made all those horrible life details up. Who does that? I work as an assistant director in the memory care unit, so I know how hard it is for some people to remember their own lives. That James Frey could come in and just fabricate his own memories really rubbed me the wrong way.
After the James Frey scandal, I’d suggested to the book club that we pick something more old school, but nobody else agreed. I guess working with old people can affect you, make you long for something shiny and new. Then I bought my own house in a new neighborhood and I met Hazel, another single woman who lives on my block. We bonded pretty quick over the whole single-woman-homeowner thing, and I jumped the book club ship, so to speak, when she invited me to join her 20th Century Book Club. “Can we read titles we’ve already read?” I’d asked.
“Sure,” she’d said. “I was thinking it would be like revisiting the modern classics. Each month we can rotate who chooses the book, and when it’s your turn, you can pick whatever novel is your favorite, or if you’d rather, you can choose something you’d always meant to read but just haven’t gotten to yet.”
When I offered to host and pick the next book, I knew which way I wanted to go. Since we’re the “20th Century Book Club” that means we don’t read anything written before 1900. That ruled out my favorite novel since I was twelve years old, Pride and Prejudice.
I went with the next best thing, Bridget Jones’ Diary. I realized the risk; the book club ladies might consider it too lightweight, and therefore judge me as lightweight as well, but the novel is so clever and funny, and it established the chick lit genre, which is a big deal. I’m not especially literary; working in the memory unit is exhausting and draining and I don’t have the time or energy to pour over Proust when I come home at night. But I have always loved to read and I believe myself a decent judge of good writing. Helen Fielding is a GOOD writer - witty and complex, all at once.
Now, as the ladies in the 20th Century Book Club sit in my cozy living room, I tell them about a memory of mine - the weekend I discovered Bridget Jones’ Diary. It was shortly after it was first published, ten years ago, in May: the weekend of prom, my senior year of high school.
I wasn’t popular as a teenager. There’d never been a question about me having a date; I knew I would not. But there were some girls who I sort of hung out with, and they planned to go as a group and I’d planned to tag along. One of them, a self-styled mean girl with neither the clout nor the finesse needed to actually be popular, felt her stock would plummet if she associated herself with me. I was getting dressed, putting on the midnight purple taffeta ruffles I’d spent too much money on, when she called to tell me I wasn’t allowed to come along.
I couldn’t find my spine. I should have insisted that I could do what I want, that she didn’t own prom, and I would sit far away from her at Olive Garden, where the group of girls planned to eat beforehand. But I sucked back tears instead, and said fine. I didn’t want to go where I wasn’t wanted.
I couldn’t tell my parents; their pity would have been too much. So I let them take pictures of me in my dress, and then I pretended to leave for Olive Garden, promising I’d be careful and I’d be home by midnight. Instead, I drove to Barnes and Noble to browse the shelves. I found Bridget Jones’ Diary, and sitting crossed legged in my purple taffeta prom dress, began to read.
Nobody said anything to me. I’m sure I was quite the sight, dressed for prom and reading on the floor of Barnes & Noble. Anyone who noticed me probably figured I’d just endured a humiliation even worse than the one I was putting myself through now, so they gave me a lot of space. After a couple of hours I realized I was famished. I stood up, went and paid for the book, and then drove half a mile to Perkins. I sat in a booth and ordered eggs, bacon, and pancakes, and I stayed there for hours, reading and accepting refill after refill of my diet coke.
I walked through my front door at 11:55 to find my mom and dad waiting for me. “How was it?” my mom asked. “Did you have a good time?”
“It was brill!” I replied.
“Brill?” My dad asked.
“”Brill’ is short for brilliant, Dad.” I used an English accent, and then I quoted the novel directly. “You only get one life. I've just made a decision to change things a bit and spend what's left of mine looking after me for a change.”
Without any further explanation, I flounced off to my bedroom, fully embracing my newly liberated outlook. Now, ten years later, I still have a strong connection with Bridget Jones. We’re both what she’d refer to as “singletons.” We both could lose a few pounds and not be underweight. We can both be socially awkward and self-indulgent. And we both love Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy.
Now, the book club ladies peer at me, their heads cocked and chins tilted. It’s like they’re all trying to figure out how to respond to my random, TMI story when they thought we’d be dissecting chick lit. Febe is the first to speak. “Reading and sitting on the floor in Barnes and Noble in a prom dress is totally something I would do. I love it.”
We’re sitting around my long card table which I only brought up from the basement for this occasion. My tiny house has no dining room, so I set up at the table and every chair I own - including three plastic yard chairs - in my living room. Of course I spruced it all up a bit, with a tablecloth and mismatched-thrift store china bowls, but we had to sit at a table so I could serve vodka cocktails and blue potato leek soup. In the book, Bridget’s soup is accidentally colored by a blue ribbon she’d forgotten to remove from the vegetables. My soup is made blue from food coloring.
But the best part? I bought a package of oversized granny panties, or “knickers” as Bridget calls them, to use as napkins.
Hazel takes a sip of her soup and uses the underwear to wipe her face. “Wow, Leah. This is all so…” her voice trails off as she, unable to find words, laughs instead.
“Don’t worry!” I tell them all. “The underwear is fresh out of the package. I just thought it would be funny, using tropes from the book.”
Hazel, who is an English teacher, raises her eyebrows like she’s impressed at my use of the word “tropes.” Then everyone laughs, and it sounds deep-throated and not the nervous, unsure type of laughter that used to come at the book club I belonged to before. Maybe the vodka, my crazy party decorations, and the confessions from my youth are loosening everyone up.
“So what’d you all think of the book?” I ask. “And before you respond, let me just say if you didn’t read it and you watched the movie instead, I’m not judging you but you need to know that the book is way better.”
“I read it!” Kayla answers. “Usually I don’t like books that are written like diaries because I just don’t buy that someone would record entire conversations or such detailed descriptions of her day. But it worked in Bridget Jones.”
“It was nice to have some escapism after Handmaid’s Tale,” says Annette, “but I’m curious - is Bridget what modern single women are supposed to be like now?”
She scans all our faces, waiting for a response but nobody says anything. “Are you asking all of us?” I say.
“Well, at least the single women,” says Annette.
“So, Leah, Febe and Hazel?” asks Jessie.
“Not me,” says Febe. “I’d be banned from my culture if I drank and smoked the way Bridget does. And not Hazel either. She may not be married, but she’s definitely not single.”
I glance at Hazel and see her cheeks pinken. Hazel once confided in me about the dramatic events of her love life and how she wants to keep her relatively new relationship on the downlow. I speak quickly, trying to help her out.
“I have a lot of experience being single. Unlike Bridget, I don’t meet very many single men, unless they’re geriatric. I don’t smoke but I do drink, though not as much as she does.”
“Leah,” interjects Hazel, “you don’t need to tell us all this.”
“I don’t mind,” I say. “I’m an open book. Seriously. And I don’t see Bridget Jones as the way a modern woman should be, but I do like the idea that it’s okay to be flawed and to laugh at yourself, and have romantic ideals.”
I leave it at that. Maybe I’m not really an open book after all, since I don’t tell them about my Mr. Darcy - the handsome, charming but emotionally unavailable Dr. Peters, who works as a psychiatrist at the memory unit where I work. Every day I pine for him, and occasionally he throws me a wink or a smile, but mostly he keeps his head down, focused only on helping his dementia patients remember the important details from their lives.
Because who are we, without our memories? When I see him, I wish I could erase my memory of sitting in my prom dress on the floor of Barnes & Noble because nobody wanted me, except for the fictional characters I called my friends. Surely that meant he would never want me either.
Yet, I look at the faces of everyone sitting around my table, at these women who aren’t fictional, even though we’re bonding over fiction. Maybe we’re bonding over real life too.
“I agree with you,” says Hazel. "There's no way I'm letting go of romance, no matter how ridiculous I might become."
“Me too,” says Kayla, and then the others murmur their agreement as well.
I raise my cocktail glass. “Here’s to romance and to laughing at yourself.”
We clink glasses, and discussing Bridget Jones’ Diary is even better than reading it for the first time was.
Host your own 20th Century Book club and discuss Bridget Jones' Diary. Follow the link below for a reader's guide!
Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding - Reading Guide: 9780140280098 - PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books
20th Century Book Club is about a fictional group of women, discussing real (fictional) books. Every month you'll see the story of their book club meeting, plus you'll have access to the book information and reader's guide if you'd like to do your 20th Century Book Club. Scroll all the way down to see the cast of characters and their profiles!